- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

CHERBOURG, France — Anyone who didn’t pay attention in history class probably missed the story of the sinking of the Confederate sloop of war Alabama outside Cherbourg harbor on June 19, 1864.

The Alabama had been doing considerable damage to U.S. merchant shipping on the high seas, in 21 months taking 64 prizes worth more than $6.5 million. Its demise was a major success for the Union and a serious setback for the South.

The Confederate raider was undergoing repairs in Cherbourg, on the northeastern coast of France, when the USS Kearsarge tracked it down. The Kearsarge could not engage in French waters, but the Alabama’s captain, Raphael Semmes, sent word to his Yankee counterpart, Capt. John Winslow, that he was coming out to fight.

Semmes’ act of Southern bravado probably cost him his ship. The two warships were nearly matched, but the Kearsarge’s gunnery clearly was superior.

In an odd way, the battle is something of a landmark in French impressionist painting. Thousands had watched from the shore as the two warships steered in circles pummeling each other with their great guns. Painter Edouard Manet was not an eyewitness, but he did visit the Kearsarge in nearby Boulogne-sur-Mer immediately after the engagement.

The result was his great history painting “The Battle of the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama,” doubtless inspired by the visit and based on newspaper accounts and popular prints of the engagement.

Over the next several months, the battle — the first decisive engagement between warships propelled by steam — is being recalled in its artistic rendition, while at the same time, marine archaeologists and deep-sea divers are attempting to salvage the Alabama itself from the seabed some 3 miles off the French Atlantic coast.

Manet’s dark and somber picture shows the Alabama covered in smoke, still upright, but with its stern submerged, and the Kearsarge standing off warily watching the slow disappearance of its “kill.”

The work hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A “companion” painting of the Kearsarge at Boulogne is in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

Manet’s two paintings currently form the centerpiece of a miniexhibition at the Met called “Manet and the American Civil War.” The show, which closes Aug. 17, includes contemporary engravings and accounts of the battle, some of it material that would have been available to Manet himself while working on his two pictures.

Manet’s Alabama painting then returns briefly to its permanent home in Philadelphia. But before you can say “anchors aweigh,” it will be off again, this time to the Art Institute of Chicago as part of a blockbuster exhibition called “Manet and the Sea” (Oct. 20 through Jan. 19, 2004). This show then goes to the Philadelphia Museum (Feb. 8 through May 9, 2004) and finally to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Manet’s love for the sea will unfold in 100 or so evocative and stylistically innovative seascapes, mainly paintings, but also including watercolors, prints and drawings; the product of his family vacations at seaside resorts starting in 1871.

As for the Alabama itself, after lying undisturbed on the seabed for 120 years, it was found accidentally by a French Navy minesweeper in 1984. A joint U.S.- French team of divers and undersea archaeologists has brought up two of its guns and a large number of artifacts, including the ship’s bell, plates and other tableware.

Plans to raise the Alabama itself have been shelved, however, because of the hazards involved in such an attempt. The main problem is strong underwater currents, a spokeswoman for the Friends of the Alabama, organizers of the salvage effort, told United Press International.

The wreck is lying in relatively shallow water at a depth of 190 feet (the Titanic site is 12,468 feet deep), but the spokeswoman said, “The Alabama is right in the middle of a huge tidal current, which is very powerful. Divers are in grave danger when there is tidal activity.”

She said divers can only work in safety on the ship for 20 minutes at a time without facing the risk of being swept away by currents.

Most of the recovered items are on display at the U.S. Navy Museum at the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington. The plan is to bring up two more guns next year and as many other movable or detachable artifacts as possible. After that, the Alabama is likely to return to an undisturbed state for perhaps another century or more.

But what of the Kearsarge? A curator at the Navy Museum told UPI that the ship sank in a storm off Nicaragua in the 1880s.

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